Jill Murphy interviewed by Joanna Carey
‘On her first day at the academy each pupil was given a broomstick and taught to ride it, which takes quite a long time and isn’t nearly as easy as it looks. Halfway through the first term they were each presented with a black kitten which they trained to ride the broomsticks … At the end of the first year each pupil received a copy of The Popular Book of Spells, a three inch thick volume bound in black leather. This was not really to be used as they already had paperback editions for the classroom, but like the cats it was another part of tradition.’
No! It’s not Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – it’s Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, established way back in 1974. A witty and original variation on the traditional ‘school story’, The Worst Witch sold out within two months of publication and it was followed by three more ‘Worst Witch’ titles – all subsequently snapped up by Puffin. ‘They were so unusual,’ says Jane Nissen, an ex Puffin editor, ‘and phenomenally successful. There was at that time a certain nervousness about stories concerning witchcraft, but these books hit the right note exactly … AND they are still in print, no mean feat for books first published in the ’70s.’ Internationally popular, the books have also inspired a film, a stage play and a TV series and things were ‘chugging along nicely’, until Harry Potter turned up. A letter to the Daily Mail in 2001 asked ‘How much does the Harry Potter phenomenon owe to Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch series?’ and talking to Jill, it’s clear that she looks back longingly to the days when she wasn’t constantly having to field questions concerning her reactions to the fact that Hogwarts is something of a rival establishment. ‘It’s irritating … everyone asks the same question and I even get children writing to ask me whether I mind about the Hogwarts school of witchcraft and pointing out similarities. Even worse are reviewers who come across my books, or see the TV series, and, without taking the trouble to find out that it’s now over quarter of a century since I wrote my first book, make pointed remarks about “clever timing” – or say things like “the Worst Witch stories are not a million miles from J K Rowling’s books”. The implications are really quite insulting! Ironically, I never dreamt I could have a career as a writer – I wrote that book when I was eighteen – yes, I was keen to get it published – to see it on the shelf alongside my own childhood favourites, but really I’d always expected to be the sort of person who got married and did the ironing…but as it turned out, my first husband (a Marxist economist) was a real feminist – he wouldn’t allow me to do the ironing, told me to get on with my writing … so I did, and the Worst Witch became the cornerstone of my career … and I’m immensely proud of it – it is, quite simply the best and the most original idea I’ve ever had.’ So it’s easy to see how Jill resents being accused of jumping on what was, in effect, her own bandwagon! ‘It spoilt things having always found writing such an easy, natural activity, I suddenly dried up – it’s hard to explain, but although there is now a new Worst Witch underway, for a long time I couldn’t write a thing. It was difficult; I sometimes think that in those traditional tales, when the fairies gather round the cradle of the newborn child, bringing gifts of wisdom, beauty, wealth etc, there should definitely be another fairy in there bringing a sense of humour and an ability to rise above things.’
In terms of talent, imagination and good looks, it’s clear that the fairies who gathered round her cradle did a good job – and the Worst Witch has certainly brought financial security. But Jill – funny, friendly, forthright and disarmingly frank – has certainly had her share of things to rise above, including two marriages that didn’t work, and a terrifying encounter with breast cancer. But now after a chaotic series of domestic upheavals, she’s living in Cornwall in an idyllic Georgian house with three enormous deerhounds, a fluffy cat and her beloved 12-year-old son Charlie. And she’s converted an adjoining barn to create a home for her elderly mother. It’s all very rural, but there’s no sense of isolation. Far from it – sitting in a rocking chair, by the Aga, in the country kitchen where she holds court with such panache, is a bit like suddenly finding yourself on stage in a fast paced Alan Ayckbourn play – with an energetic cast constantly zipping in and out through doors that open and close on all sides of the room, a script that swerves from world affairs to local gossip and a subplot concerning the building of a swimming pool – will it be ready for Charlie’s birthday on Saturday? Rita, Jill’s secretary, enters stage right with some papers, and subsequently appears through a door on the left with a pile of freshly laundered school shirts (clearly, Jill never did get to do the ironing). Rita’s husband, out in the rain overseeing the building work, comes in for a cup of tea. Dave, who’s been operating some earsplitting machinery laying flagstones comes in through yet another door with a length of rope and talks about his other life as a tree surgeon and shows me how to tie a clove hitch. Offstage, an electrician is installing lights in the swimming pool. Charlie, who should be doing his homework, talks urgently to a boy in a T-shirt with a Criminal Damage slogan about music and forthcoming gigs. Charlie, master of the running gag, endlessly tries to persuade his mum to let him have a go in the pool. But, the electrician hasn’t finished and anyway, his mum points out, it’ll be too cold because the water isn’t yet heated … there’s a lull and Charlie reappears triumphantly from yet another door in a wet suit.
And it’s against this lively informal background, that I learn about Jill Murphy’s own, rather more orderly upbringing in Surrey, and how it was that she came up with the idea for the Worst Witch when she was only 14.
‘I was at a very strict Convent school in Wimbledon, we wore a dark navy uniform – long coats and velour hats: I took some friends home one day and my mother said “just look at you, you look like the three witches!” and I did some drawings – it was easy to convert the school hats into witches’ hats. And at school, nuns in long black habits lurked invisibly in the shadows – just as you were doing something forbidden, a pale face would magically appear and you’d be caught red handed. Other ideas – like the potion lessons – were inspired by time spent in the chemistry lab.’ And the presentation of the The Popular Book of Spells? ‘Well, that was because all new girls were traditionally presented with a Bible at the end of the first year. The cats were there to make it easy for readers to imagine themselves into this world by engaging with their own pets at home.’
From the start Jill was addressing a young age group. ‘I simply wanted to write about the girls’ day-to-day experience of school life – even if the school was a bit different.’ The first Worst Witch story gets instant lift-off in the opening pages with the striking image of the turreted school building high up on a mountain, surrounded by pine forests. ‘I got that idea on holiday with my parents at Durlston Bay, Swanage – across the bay you could see a turret sticking out of the trees – it looked so exciting – but when I explored, it wasn’t a castle as I’d thought, but a rather splendid tea-room.’ And somehow that’s typical of the magic of these beautifully conceived books, with the fantasy so comfortably accommodated in familiar territory.
A prolific writer, even at five, Jill still has a lot of her early work, and while she goes off to find the knitting bag in which her mother has lovingly preserved it, Charlie – now wearing a Jimmy Hendrix T-shirt – comes in with a guitar. He strums while I look at the little books, written in a flowing confident hand, and lavishly illustrated. ‘My mother always encouraged me, and being a librarian, she also made sure I read widely – C S Lewis was my all-time favourite, I loved Dickens and T H White – I adored Mistress Masham’s Repose – I think it was Maria’s football boots that inspired me to put the Worst Witch in hobnailed boots; and I loved Enid Blyton – especially the Good Morning Book – my mother kept giving it to jumble sales but I always managed to buy it back again. Comics were a huge influence – especially Girl.’
Jill was restless at school – a bit of a tearaway perhaps? ‘Probably a bit too individual I think’ – the only lesson she enjoyed was art so at 16 she went to art school, but couldn’t settle; one problem, in those days, was the lack of illustration courses; she attended three art schools in quick succession and at the third and last one she got so depressed she began to stay in bed all day. So she left and did various jobs, including working in a children’s home and she shows me another book of stories she wrote for the children in the home. Meanwhile The Worst Witch, having been turned down by three publishers, languished in a drawer until, by chance, she met some new, enlightened young publishers (Allison and Busby) who immediately recognised its potential.
Upstairs, away from the hubbub of the kitchen, her studio has a quiet reflective atmosphere and view of open country, with a buzzard wheeling overhead. Three stuffed bats hang from a shelf. From the start Jill did her own illustrations. The Worst Witch books all have spirited line drawings of the quaintly named Mildred Hubble and co., and distinctive silhouette jacket designs. But for her picture books she uses the very child friendly medium of coloured pencils with gently stippled textures and subtle gradations of colour. Her first, Peace at Last, was an instant success and was shortlisted for the 1980 Greenaway medal. This was followed by a warm, witty series of picture books about a family of suburban elephants – the Large family, and then in 1995 she wrote The Last Noo-noo, a picture book based on her experience of trying to persuade Charlie to give up his dummy. This won her the Smarties prize, but it was a difficult time for her: ‘I was in hospital, having just had an operation for breast cancer, so I couldn’t go to the ceremony, so Charlie went instead – he was six. He accepted the prize for me then afterwards he was brought round to the hospital – he rushed into the ward to cheer me up, and really that was the most delightful thing in the whole world. And,’ she adds, with feeling, ‘I think it’s worth saying how I’ve treasured every single day since coming through that operation.’
Along with her customary perceptive humour, memories of Charlie’s exploits as a little boy have provided further inspiration for her latest picture book. All for One is about Marlon, an only child who’s keen to make friends with a local gang. By now the electrician has finished – and Charlie says his homework really is done – so, although it’s now dark, and still raining, he’s finally allowed to dive into the pool. He surfaces with a beaming smile and his mum gets a big soggy hug of gratitude … and it’s not hard to imagine what the next Jill Murphy picture book might be about.
All for One, Walker, 0 7445 4914 0, £10.99 hbk
All in One Piece, Walker, 0 7445 5593 0, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 6002 0, £4.99 pbk
Five Minutes’ Peace, Walker, 0 7445 6001 2, £4.99 pbk, 0 7445 8119 2, £4.99 board
The Last Noo-noo, Walker, 0 7445 3228 0, £8.99 hbk, 0 7445 5298 2, £4.99 pbk
A Piece of Cake, Walker, 0 7445 5595 7, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 6003 9, £4.99 pbk
A Quiet Night In, Walker, 0 7445 5596 5, £9.99 hbk, 0 7445 6000 4, £4.99 pbk, 0 7445 6925 7, £12.99 big book
Worlds Apart, Walker, 0 7445 4786 5, £3.50 pbk
The Worst Witch, Puffin, 0 14 031108 4, £3.99 pbk, Puffin Modern Classic, 0 14 037249 0, £4.99 pbk, TV tie-in edition, 0 14 130330 1, £3.99 pbk
The Worst Witch Strikes Again, Puffin, 0 14 031348 6, £3.99 pbk, TV tie-in edition, 0 14 130331 X, £3.99 pbk
A Bad Spell for the Worst Witch, Puffin, 0 14 031446 6, £3.99 pbk, TV tie-in editon, 0 14 130647 5, £3.99 pbk
The Worst Witch All at Sea, Puffin, 0 14 034389 X, £4.99 pbk, TV tie-in edition, 0 14 130646 7, £4.99 pbk
The Worst Witch’s Spelling Book, with Rose Griffiths, Puffin, 0 14 037672 0, £3.99 pbk
Photographs by Joanna Carey.
Joanna Carey is a writer and illustrator.